Less Carbon, More Footprints

by Kate Howe, VIA's Urban Planner

Just under two weeks ago, I attended the WALK21 conference in NYC. Now in its tenth year, WALK21 is an international coalition that advocates for walking, focusing on the pedestrian as the integrative point in any transportation system. This year the conference was underwritten by NYDOT- and partnered with the Association of American Bike Pedestrian Professionals (APBP) combining both hands-on training seminars with the broader themes of WALK21.

Walking, as we know, touches on everything; from urban design, to transportation and land use planning, to air pollution and climate, to public health. And so the topics ranged broadly from the economic benefits of building walkable neighborhoods, to planning for climate change, to the measurability and design of walking and transport planning. This year, the typically eurocentric nature of the conference was challenged as attendees hailed not only from Stockholm and Copenhagen but also Mexico City to a broad North American showing of both US and Canadian experience.

WALK21’s goal is to give each the tools to advocate for and to design excellent walking environments.  In fact, the promise of clear, standardized empirical tools was one of the conferences most exciting ideas for me. As the WALK21 board and their partners move forward with their Pedestrian Quality Needs Index, they are helping all of us reach the goal that will standardize how cities can measure what has always before been considered soft information about the quality of a street.

Rodney Tolley of WALK21 discussed their current development of a replicable pedestrian quality survey that Cities around the world could undertake for about $20,000. The survey is distilled from the best practice experiences in Copenhagen, London and now New York and would help even small governments understand the condition of walking and provide them with access to global expertise. The smaller scaled survey is available now, while a full report planned for release in 2010. The group is looking to identify;

·      What should we measure?
Which dimensions / indicators are desirable and/or necessary to evaluate walking and public space?

·      How should we measure it?
Which methods and tools are useful; how should data be collected?

·      And what should we standardize internationally – and how?

At the conference, it seemed clear that London is the city most responsible for blazing a new trail for measuring, accommodating and supporting walking. Since 2000, they have all but redesigned their transportation system to provide for massive population growth on the same tired infrastructure. Transport for London has found that carrying space for a pedestrian is three times higher than the next most efficient form (bus). Walking also accounts for 80% of trips made under a mile. Yet there was limited official recognition of the efficiency of walking as a mode of transport. This blind spot has since disappeared through a system now designed to measure person flow rather than vehicle flow. The TFL transport models now include Pedestrian demand models, the results are redesigned tube entrances, street crossings, intersections, and enhanced pedestrian safety. TFL is also fighting an information war to change people’s habits particularly in a city where even locals get lost. Some of their latest campaigns to get people more comfortable walking include mapping of walking routes, and a way finding system “Legible London.”

However, back to our US based leader -  New York City. Here there is entirely less empiricism, but the City under Bloomberg’s PlanNYC initiative has already conducted successful tests and done a complete overhaul of the NYC Street Design Manual…. DOT is seeing the results; and expanding the programs. How will this affect pedestrian safety and congestion? One can already look at what has happened in the take back of Times Square. I walked the length of Broadway from Herald Square to midtown for the first time ever – even after growing up 30 miles from the city and living in New York for five years- never before would you go to Times square as a local ON PURPOSE. Now it is a pleasant, amazing, experience to see what a bucket of paint and some picnic tables can do.

I am curious to see how New York City will influence other cities to think about management of their own pedestrian networks. Can this city, with arguably the best walking environment in the country, lead the way for others as they collect data on separated and buffered bicycle lanes, street pedestrian islands, and street closures in overly congested public spaces. This link to streetsfilms gives a good overview of just what they are up against.